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THE BIRDS AND BIRD-SONGS AT THE OLD FARM
"Sing away, ye joyous birds,
While the sun is o'er us."
Looking back to that first fortnight after my arrival at the Old Squire's, I think what most impressed my youthful mind was the country verdure and the bird-songs. Everything looked so very green, accustomed as my eyes were to the red city bricks, white doorsteps and dusty streets. The universal green of those June days at times well nigh bewildered me.
Astronomers tell us that there are systems of worlds in outer space, presided over by green suns; it was as if I had been transported to such a world. Moreover, the effect was cool and calm and healthful; cities are abnormal places of abode; man originated and during all the early ages of his development, lived in the green, arboreal country, surrounded by rustic scenery and sylvan quiet. The clangor and roar of a great city, particularly the noise by night, is unnatural; nor are the reflected colors from urban structures normal to the eye. Add to these the undue tension to which city life, as a whole, braces the living substance of brain and nerve, and the reason why city populations have to be so constantly recruited from the country is in some degree explained. Children even more than older persons need country surroundings.
Next to the deep novelty of the wide green landscape, came the bird-songs. It was June. The air seemed to me all a-quiver with bird-notes, and I was listening to each and every one. Ah, to my untried, youthful eyes those fresh great hay-fields, whitening with ox-eyed daisies, reddening with sweet-scented clover and streaked golden with vivid yellow butter-cups, over which the song-convulsed bobolinks hovered on arcuate wings!
I had never heard the nesting song of a bobolink before. What a song it is! — the eager zeal, the exultation in it. The overflowing, rollicking joy with which it is poured forth, filled me with such gleeful astonishment, the first time I heard one, and struck such a chord of sympathetic feeling in my heart and so powerfully, that I recollect shouting, "ye-ho!" and racing tumultuously after the rapturous singer.
"What does that bird say?" I cried.
Laughing quietly at my fresh curiosity, the Old Squire told me that the bird was supposed to say, —
"Bob o' Lincoln, take-a-stick-and-give-a-lick, Bob-olink, Kitty-link, Withy-link, Billy-seeble, see, see, see!"
Addison gave a somewhat different interpretation which has now slipped my memory; I deemed the Old Squire's version the more reliable one. While strawberrying in the fields, that summer, I searched three or four times for the nests which I felt sure were close by, in the grass, for the little plain gray wife of the noisy singer sat on the weed-tops, crying, — "Skack! skack!" but I could not find them.
Once, I remember, the following year Theodora and I resolved that we would find the nest of one bold fellow that kept singing close over our heads, as we were gathering strawberries in a grassy swale, in the west field. We set down our dishes and crept over every foot of a tract at least a quarter of an acre in extent, and went over a part of it two or three times. At last, we found it, but not till we had crushed both nest and eggs beneath our crawling knees — a denouement which distressed Theodora so much that she declared she would never search for a bobolink's nest again. "Clumsy monsters that we are," said she; "the poor thing's nest is crushed into the dirt!"
When we came to mow that swale a few days after, Gramp first marvelled, then grumbled repeatedly; for the grass was in a mat. He spoke of it at the dinner table that day, making a covert accusation against Gram, whereupon Theodora and I owned up in the matter, Doad naively adding that we had done it "on the strength of Gram's original permit," but that we had agreed never to do so again. The Old Squire laughed a little grimly and said he wanted it understood, that the permit, alluded to, was not transferable. But the old lady now interposed her opinion, that the permit could be made a moderate use of by others, if she saw fit — and needed strawberries.
A pair of blue-birds built their nest in a box which Addison had nailed to a short pole and set up in the barnyard wall; and every morning, as we milked the cows, we would hear their plaintive notes, repeated over and over to each other as they flew about; — "Deary, cheer up, Deary, cheer up!" as if life needed constant mutual consolation, to be supported. "Old Ummy," the house cat, was much inclined to watch their box and once attempted to climb up to them.
Two pairs of peewees built about the premises, one just inside the south barn cellar, the other under a projecting window-sill at the end of the wagon-house. These two pairs, or younger birds reared there, had built in these same places for seven or eight years. Night and morning as we milked, and at noon also, as we sat grinding scythes at the well, those old peewees would alight on posts, or gables, rub their beaks twice on the dry wood and cry, "Peewee, peewee, peewitic; pewee, peer-a-zitic!" For some not very good reason, I took a boyish dislike to peewees. They are very useful birds, great destroyers of worms, moths and flies, and so far as I know, never do the slightest harm, which can hardly be said of all our feathered favorites.
As we hoed potatoes and corn on those green June days, the song of the little gray ground sparrows was constantly in my ears, although the others seemed not to notice it.
"And what does that one say?" I asked Gramp.
"What one?" the old gentleman asked.
"Why, that bird! It sings all the time," I rejoined. "Don't you hear it?"
He stopped and appeared to listen, at a loss, for a minute, as to what I heard.
"Oh, those sparrows," replied he, at length. "Addison, can you tell him what they say?"
"Yes," replied Ad, laughing, "they say and say it very distinctly, too, 'Charlotte, Charlotte, don't you hear me whistle?' Charlotte is his mate, you know; and the reply to that is 'Philip, Philip's sitting on the thistle.'"
"That is a little different from what they used to tell me when I was a boy," Gramp remarked. "I was told that they say, 'War-link, war-link, christle, christle, christle; high-link, high-link, twiddle, twiddle, twiddle.'"
"Good deal anybody knows what a bird says," Halstead exclaimed, derisively. "They don't say anything that I can make out."
But it seemed to me, after Addison had mentioned it, that the first, or opening note of the song sparrow, was much like, "Charlotte, Charlotte, don't you hear me whistle?" They had several other notes, too, not as easily likened to human language; indeed, these humble little sparrows, when one comes to listen closely to them in all their moods, have a curious variety of short arias.
During my second week at the farm, I found a sparrow's nest in a small bunch of hard-hack, a few rods from the cow-pasture bars, with four eggs, resembling, only a little larger than, speckled garden beans; and I visited it every morning, till the sprawling, skinny little chicks were hatched. But on the third morning the nest was empty; something had taken them. Addison said that it was most likely a crow, but possibly a snake. We often found the nests, while haying in the fields; the scythe generally passed over them without doing any harm, and to save them from the rake, we would put up a stick close beside them. But their enemies are wofully numerous; not half the nests of young are reared. Ants, I think, kill numbers of the nestlings, soon after they are hatched, when they chance to be near an ant-hill.
But in the early mornings and evenings, and before the quickly gathering south rains, the songsters of all others, which made the air vocal, were the great, bold, red-breasted robins, not fewer than nine pairs of which had their capacious nests in the garden, orchard and Balm o' Gilead trees. They always took the greater part of our cherries, till Addison at a considerable expense, some years later, bought mosquito netting to spread over the tree tops; and they also ate strawberries greedily; but we as constantly overlooked their offenses, they sang so royally and came familiarly back to us so early every spring. No one can long find the heart to injure Robin Red-Breast.
I do not think it necessary to qualify, or speak of this our fine bird as the "American robin, or red-breasted thrush," because a different bird is called the robin in England. This our bird is the Robin; and we shall call it so without apology, or explanatory adjectives.
The robin songs in the Balm o' Gileads, just across the yard from our chamber windows, were the matins that often waked us in June, and sounded in our drowsy ears as we lay, still half asleep, reluctant to rise and dress. For however it may be with most boys, I am obliged to confess that both then and later, I was a sleepy-head in the morning; it always seemed to me on waking, particularly in the summer months, that I was not half rested, and that I would give almost anything I possessed for another hour of sleep. As a fact, I now feel sure that I did not get sleep enough, from half past nine in the evening to five in the morning; and I think that most boys and girls of thirteen and fourteen need nine hours of sleep in every twenty-four hours, especially where they are in active exercise or work throughout the day. It is really cruel to drive a boy up when he is so shockingly sleepy! There was always so much going on, that we could not well go to bed till after nine in the evening, although I would sometimes steal away up-stairs as soon as it was dark.
Curiously enough it was when I was but about half awake in the morning, that those robin-songs sounded the most distinctly, and I seemed to hear every note and trill which they uttered.
"Tulip, tulip, tulip; skillit, skillit,
Tulip, skillit; fill it, fill it, fill it;" —
followed after a moment or two, perhaps, by a shrill and noisy "Piff! piff! piff!" — as some sudden dissension broke out, or some suspicious cat, or other marauder, came near the nest tree. The crows, always bold in the early morning hours, would come into the Balm o' Gileads after birds' nests, sometimes, before we were astir. I remember that Addison once cut my nap short by firing his gun from the chamber window at a crow that was sneaking into the Balm o' Gileads after young robins. He shot the crow, but my own ear rang for more than two hours, and I was so confused for a time, that I scarcely knew enough to dress myself.
There is no combination of letters which more nearly represents the song notes of the robin than the above, I think, although many attempts have been made to render them into some semblance of human language. Addison always insisted that they said, "Dew-lip, Dew-lip; bill it, bill it, bill it;" — the whole song being an exhortation of the robin to his mate whose name was Dew-lip, to get up and bill it for worms. Halstead had somewheres got hold of a medical rendering of the song, by a waggish doctor who declared that the robins were constantly admonishing him in the line of his profession: —
"Kill 'em, cure 'em; physic, physic."
But the rest of us scouted this partisan interpretation.
The explosive, alarmingly energetic danger cry of, "Piff, piff," which will so suddenly wake the entire vicinity of the nest, is at times modified and given quite a different intonation, as if to express discontent: "Fibb, fibb!" and sometimes even loneliness: "Pheeb, pheeb!" — very mournful.
During a shower, accompanied by wind in heavy wrenching gusts, in the night, that summer, a nest containing four young robins fell from a maple, a few rods down the lane, into the grass beneath. Theodora heard the outcry of the old robins, blended with the thunder and the roar of the rain, in the night, and noticing their mournful notes next morning about the tree, made search and discovered the calamity. Addison and she gathered up the nestlings and putting them in an old berry box, lined with grass and cotton batting, tied the improvised nest to a branch of the maple. For an hour or two the scolding old birds would not go near the thing, but later in the day we saw them, feeding their young in it, quite as if nothing had happened to disturb them.
In the rear of the wagon-house there grew a good-sized mountain ash or round-wood tree which nearly every fall was crowned with the usual great bright-red clusters of bitter berries. Late in October the robins always came for those berries, and sometimes a flock of fifty or sixty would assemble. We often tried to frighten the birds away, for the red clusters are beautiful in winter, but for a long time we never succeeded in saving them. The robins would linger about for a week, or more, rather than leave a single bunch of those berries ungathered. Addison once placed a stuffed cat-skin in the tree, at which the robins scolded vociferously for a day or two from the neighboring shrubs and fence; but they suddenly discovered the deception and got all the remaining berries in the course of a single forenoon. Addison was boasting a little of the success of his ruse when, at dinner, Ellen quietly bade him go look at the tree. The robins had already got every berry and gone, leaving the feline effigy in the bare tree, an object of mirth and ridicule. A scarecrow made of old clothes, stuffed with hay and crowned by an old hat, set up in the tree the following year, served no better purpose. Ellen and Theodora then hung an old tin clothes boiler in the tree, and arranged a jangling bunch of tin ware inside it, with a long line running to the kitchen window, where they could conveniently give it a jerk every few minutes. This device answered well for a day or two, and it was very amusing to see those robins scatter from the tree, when the line was pulled. They were some little time making up their minds concerning it, and would sit on the back fence and rub their beaks on the posts, at intervals, as if making a great effort to comprehend the cause of the "manifestations" inside the boiler. No doubt the more superstitious ones attributed it to "spirits." Skepticism increased, however, and by the second day one unbelieving red fellow refused to budge, till the line was jerked twice, and soon after that they wore the girls out, pulling it, and got the berries as usual. The year after, Addison saved the berries by stretching one of his cherry-tree nets over the round-wood tree, in October. It chanced, however, that the tree failed to produce a crop of berries the next season and died a year or two later; — a circumstance which Gram hinted, mysteriously, might be a "dispensation," on account of our persistent efforts to thwart the robins. It should be taken into account, however, that the mountain-ash is not long-lived, and that this was already an old tree.
In a large maple, down the lane, a preacher-bird sang every day in June and until into August, generally loudest and most continuously, from eleven till two o'clock. On coming to or going from our dinner, we would often hear him: sometimes he sang in the morning and now and then after supper. This bird — it is the red-eyed vireo — has an oddly persistent, pragmatic note, which can hardly be called singing, being more like declamation and somewhat disconnected and disjoint, as if the "preacher" were laying down certain truths and facts and seeking by constant iteration to impress them upon dullards. Betwixt every one of these short sentences, there is a little pause, as if the preacher were waiting for the truth to strike home to his hearers; but if the bird is watched, he will be seen to be picking and hopping about on the branch which serves him as a pulpit, snapping up a bug or a seed here and there. Yet his discourse goes steadily on, by the half hour, or hour, sometimes with a rising inflection, as after a question, sometimes the falling, as having given an irrefutable answer, himself. Once the idea that the bird is preaching has entered a listener's mind, he can never shake it off.
"My hearers — where are you? — You know it — you see it. — Do you hear me? — Do you believe it?" And so on, upon the same insistent and at length tiresome strain.
"Oh, I do wish that preacher bird would stop," Ellen would exclaim at times. "He has 'preached' steadily all the forenoon!"
His place for singing was always about half way from the ground to the top of the maple, and he rarely came out in sight. The female was probably sitting on her nest, hard by. They are trim little olive-tinted birds and often rear two broods, I think, for they remain north till autumn.
Once while Elder Witham was with us, in haying time, Ellen exclaimed, inadvertently, as we were going in to sit down at table one day, "There's that preacher bird again!"
The Elder looked at her a moment and said slowly, "'Preacher-bird, preacher-bird,' what kind of a bird is that, young lady?"
Greatly abashed at her lapse, Ellen hardly knew how to best explain it, but Addison came to her rescue. "There are two of those vireos," he remarked in a perfectly natural, matter-of-fact tone. "One of them, the warbling vireo, they call the 'brigadier' on account of its peculiar note, and the other or red-eyed vireo, the 'preacher,' from its earnest manner of utterance. I don't know," Addison continued, with candid frankness, "that the names are very well chosen, but we have got in the habit of calling them that way."
The Elder listened to this, observing Addison closely, then appeared thoughtful for a moment and said, impressively, "Well, all God's creatures preach, if only we have ears to hear them." Ellen drew a long breath of relief, and after dinner, out on the wood-shed walk, she took Addison by the button and said, "You're a treasure, Ad; ask me for a cooky any time after this."
The brigadier, or warbling vireo, frequently sits on the tops of trees, when singing; while the preacher takes his stand midway from the ground upwards; the brigadier, too, more frequently joins in the great opening overture of all bird voices, at dawn, to usher in the new day, while preacher reserves his notes till the earlier choir has ceased its anthem. Withal the little preacher is much more apt to nest in trees near the habitations of men than his congener, the brigadier, who not unfrequently makes his abode at a distance from buildings, where forests border pastures, or old roads enter woody lands.
Another shrill, small songster of habits quite similar to the brigadier we used sometimes to hear, but rarely saw, on our way over to the "Aunt Hannah lot," an adjunct of the Old Squire's farm, to reach which we crossed a tract of sparse woods. Its notes, prolonged on a very sharp, high key, resembled the words, My fee-fee-fee-fee-fee! each louder and keener than the preceding.
Addison was quite uncertain as to this bird, during the first and second summers we were at the farm. We only saw it once or twice; for its favorite place, while singing, is at the top of some large dense tree; and we were never able to find its nest. Addison at length decided that it was an oven-bird, a surmise which he greatly desired to verify by finding the rest.
Later in life he has often laughed over our ignorance and our fruitless quests at that time.
Among the raspberry and blackberry briars, beside the stone wall on the south side of this same old road, leading to the Aunt Hannah lot, we used to see, occasionally, a deep blue indigo-bird, a very active little fellow, always flitting and hopping about amongst the briars. But we never heard it sing, nor utter any note, save rarely a petulant snip, snip, and never found its nest.
To the south of the same lot there was a tract of mixed wood, sapling pines, maples, a few beeches, and farther down, nearer the brook, white ash and great yellow birches, with swamp maples, osier and alder. Here among the beeches, maples and pines, we at times heard a Theresa-bird. Theodora chanced to know something of this bird; and I remember that the first time we ever went there together, she called out to us to listen to the low, sweet note, which otherwise, in our haste, we should not have noticed. Addison had never heard it then, and his volumes of Audubon did not describe New England birds very clearly; but Theodora said this was a Theresa-bird (which we subsequently found to be the Green Warbler) and that its song was supposed, in Catholic countries, to be a petition to St. Theresa, viz., — "Hear me, St. Theresa," beginning quite high and sinking to a much lower strain. I have since seen in the naturalist Nuttall's work, that this author compares the note of the Green Warbler to the syllables, te-de-deritsea, repeated slowly and melodiously.
On the north side of the lane, leading from the house down to the road, opposite the maple above alluded to, where the robins had a nest, there stood two elms, quite tall trees, in the uppermost of which, during three summers, a pair of Baltimore orioles built. These orioles had never come there previously; at least, the Old Squire had never seen one, but Gram recognized them the first time one sang, as an old acquaintance of her girlhood days; she called them Golden Robins and was much delighted to hear them. They came on one of the first days of June; and as I had arrived but a few days previously, Gram declared that I "had brought them with me." But the fact is, that the Baltimore oriole moves its habitat slowly northeastward, in the wake of man and his orchards and shade trees; for it is one of those birds which, like the robin, depend on mankind for protection. This pair constructed a hanging nest from a twig of one of the drooping elm branches and reared a brood successfully that season; and throughout that entire month of June, their song, uttered at intervals of their labors, was a daily delight to us all. Next after the wood thrush and the robin, the loud yet sweetly modulated call of the Baltimore oriole is the most pleasing of all our bird notes. Pure and sweet as it is, too, it nearly always startles the hearer, from its regal volume and 5 strength. Gram's version of its song was, Cusick, cusick! So-ho-o-o! Do you know I'm back with you! But the words themselves give no idea whatever of the song, unless uttered with the strange, liquid modulations which characterize it.
During the third season some accident befell the pair, or their nest; they suddenly disappeared and thenceforward we missed their melodious invocations. Gram, in particular, lamented their departure. A pair, perhaps the same pair, afterwards built in a butternut tree near the Edwards' farmhouse; but they never returned to us. To the lover of birds, the oriole in its flight among the trees, like a yellow meteor flashing past, is a sight that instantly rivets the attention, and is as delightfully startling to the eye as its song is to the ear. But I know of no device by means of which they can be attracted to nest in any given locality; their tastes are not well enough known to us; "houses," like those which attract the blue-bird and the martin, possess no charm for the oriole. With the first of June Gram watched, wistfully, for the return of this pair, during a number of successive springs; and for her sake especially, we all hoped they would come back.
I arrived too late the first spring, to hear the woodlands echo to the May-note of the white-throated sparrow. Once only, while going out to get the cows with little Wealthy, the second week after I came, I heard it twice repeated, from the woods along the south side of the pasture, and when I asked my small companion what kind of a bird that was, she roguishly cried, "Oh, that's old Ben Peabody."
"Is that what he says?" I asked, for the name at once struck me as being like the bird's note.
"Yes," cried Wealthy. "He says, 'Old Ben Peabody, Peabody, Peabody,' just as plain as anything; Theodora says so; and so does Nell and all of us, but Addison. Ad thinks he says, 'All day whittling, whittling, whittling.' And Alf Batchelder says, — but I'll not tell what he thinks the bird says."
"What is it?" I queried.
"It's nothing very pretty," quoth Wealthy, running off to get around the cows, thereby evading the question altogether, for she had not as yet grown very well acquainted with me.
But I have perhaps lingered too long with birds and bird-songs. It is a fond subject, however, and scarcely can I forbear to speak of the veeries, the vesper-birds, and "hair-birds" whose nests we so often found in the orchard; the cedar birds or cherry birds which so persistently stripped the wild cherry trees and pear-plum shrubs; the wood thrushes that trilled forth such sad, mellow refrains in the cool, gray border of the wood-lot below the fields, at eventide; the yellow-hammers that tapped on the pasture stumps and cried out boisterously when rain was impending; the wrens that filled and re-filled a bit of hollow aqueduct log on the lane wall, with sticks for a nest and laid thirteen eggs in it; the hundreds of black-birds that built in the reeds down at the great bog, near the head of the lake; the sap-suckers that punctured the trunks of the apple-trees with thousands of tiny holes; the many-voiced blue-jays that came around when the corn was ripening in September and sometimes lingered all winter in the neighborhood.
And of the great pileated woodpeckers, a pair of which occasionally cried loud and long from the five lofty pine stubs in the colt pasture, beyond the Aunt Hannah lot; the yellow-birds that piped, pee-chid-aby, pee-chid-aby, on wavy lines of flight, upon the last days of August, just ere taking wing for warmer climes; the imitative cat-birds that built in the alders along the road across the meadow, whose nests the boys held it lawful to destroy because, forsooth, "they sucked other birds' eggs," a false accusation rendered plausible, perhaps, from their disagreeable feline squalls, and not wholly ingenuous imitations of the songs of the thrush, the veery and the robin.
How well, too, I recall the cuckoos that, night or day, intoned so moodily in the willow copses below the east field fence and suffered from a like unpopular accusation of "laying their eggs in other birds' nests." Also the mated triads of sooty chimney swallows that rumbled nightly in the great brick flues of the farmhouse, and at first almost terrified me, but at length furnished the thalamian refrain that most surely lulled me asleep; the red-headed woodpeckers that with sharp cries and concave stoop of flight moved fitfully, from tree to tree, tapping this one loudly, that one low and dull, and whose nest hole in the dead maple on the hillside was re-occupied year after year, till at last the stub blew down and broke short off at the hole itself; the king-fishers that with the same stooping flight, sprung their sharp rattles along the brooks and lakeside; the martins that feloniously caught the bees, and every season dragged their squalling, screaming young out of their pole-house, then poked them off the platform to fly for themselves, having first, however, cleared the yard of cats.
The militant king birds, too, that built every June on the tops of the small apple-trees in the young orchard, and raged in mid air, overhead, pouring out a wild farago of sharp cries, never so happy as when in full career after crows, hawks, cats or dogs; the moth-catching night-hawks that cried peerk from their wide mouths, high in the sky at nightfall, and dived far aslant on stiff wings, with a long drawn soo-oo-ook; the clucking whip-poor-wills, that chanted from the bare flat pasture rocks; the chickadees that came into the orchard and about the great loose farm woodpile, in February, with their odd little minor refrain of cic-a-da-da-da-da, mere feathery mites of ceaseless activity that somehow did not freeze, at 20° below zero.
In this freezing weather, too, came the white-winged flocks of snow-buntings, that heralded the coming storm and flew away, blending with the whirling snowflakes, uttering queer thin notes that seemed like spirit voices from the upper air: all these and many others, Nature's humble angels, what part and parcel they were of that dear old farm life of ours!
Nor yet have I mentioned the larger game birds, nor the birds of prey; the "hoot-owls" that both in summer and winter, but oftenest in March and October, on still, dark, cloudy evenings, uttered their dismal, deep bass hoot, hoot, hoo-oo-oot, from the depths of the gloomy forest side, beyond the Little Sea; the hen-hawks that cried down chickee-ee to us, from endless mazy circles high over the farm, and occasionally decimated the poultry, or were seen sailing low across the fields with a snake dangling from their claws; the eagles that seldom, but on a few occasions paid a brief visit to the vicinity; the herons that frogged along the boggy shore of the lake and built their nests in the tops of the Foy Brook pines; the wild geese that flew northward in a wide V, early in the spring and again southward in October; the sheldrake and the black ducks which Addison had such success shooting every fall, in the old mill pond, beyond the east wood-lot; the swift-diving loons of the blue Pennesseewassee, that flew heavily across the hills, to several northerly ponds, uttering shaken, hollow cries, or that in the early evening and morning hours, pealed their mellow, alto horns from the calm bosom of the lake; the partridges that "drummed" in the outlying copses and patches of second growth, in April, and led forth their broods in June, subject every autumn to our first excited, early efforts at gunning; and last of all, the flapping, canny, thievish, black crows that like the foxes were always about, and always at loggerheads with the farmers.